The benefits of a few spoken words acting as passwords for bank accounts and other services are being heard. Film characters have protected their secrets with voice passwords for years, but the biometric locks, with a little help from voice over IP telephony (VoIP), are now making their way into call centres in this part of the world..
The technology, known as voice print identification, isn't quite as sophisticated yet as it was in the 1992 thriller Sneakers, in which geek Werner Brandes utters the words, "My voice is my password. Verify me", to gain entry to his high-tech office.
But then proponents also hope it's a little more secure than it was in that movie, because Robert Redford and his cohorts were able to use a recording of Brandes' voice to thwart Ben Kingsley's nefarious plans.
S2 Intelligence managing director Bruce McCabe says voice print ID has come a long way fast and in the not too distant future people will regularly gain access to bank accounts and other services with one or two words.
"Voice prints are interesting because it's such a simple technology and it's maturing very quickly," McCabe says.
"A whole lot of companies are now starting to do password supplements or even password replacements with voice prints. That way they hear you at the call centre and immediately know who you are.
"People are going to use that . . . even at point of sale. You'll walk into the bank branch, talk to the teller, the system picks it up and, even if you never identified yourself, the system knows that it's you."
The bank branch scenario is not really all that close and there are still concerns over how well or poorly consumers might respond to being identified to tellers just by saying hello.
But VoIP is allowing companies to pipe more and more software into their call centres, and Genesys Australasia vice-president Jason Sterling says one of the systems that's gaining in popularity is voice print ID.
"We're seeing a maturation of speech recognition technology and we're seeing more companies invest in speech as what we like to term as open interface or open front door to their customers," he says.
"One of the challenges that many organisations face is how they efficiently and effectively authenticate their customers, and some research shows that voice print is more effective than finger prints.
"When you look at the applications that can be built around speech, it's a very flexible way to do biometric authentication."
The use of voice print identification isn't widespread in Australia, but VeCommerce's general manager of marketing, Martyn Riddle, says businesses using the technology include Wollongong-based health insurer AHM and regional pay television operator Austar.
Global Speech Networks managing director Nick Rodda says VoIP is playing a starring role in the adoption of technologies such as voice print ID because it gives greater flexibility to call centres which want to use speech recognition for a variety of applications.
He also says contemporary VoIP technologies mean that call centres can tap into hosted VoIP software without replacing traditional PABXs.
"In a lot of cases we're connecting to existing PABXs that aren't necessarily VoIP PABXs but we're retrofitting them with a VoIP interconnect capability," says Rodda.
"That really provides a lot of flexibility in being able to provide network-based services to what would be traditional or out of date phone systems.
"It means that we can introduce speech recognition and interactive voice response into someone's call centre environment in a pretty flexible way."
Rodda says interest in voice print identification is on the rise.
However, he also notes that it could be some time before consumers regularly use a voice password to manage their finances when they phone a bank's call centre.
"I'm not sure if the financial institutions will take it on as quickly as some would hope, but I think there are a lot of other uses for it in verifying people for other, probably more mundane transactions.
"Certainly it will prove a useful tool in a lot of other areas."
Riddle warns that banks may not want to wait too long before embracing voice print ID.
Research the company conducted in conjunction with callcentres.net found consumers were ready to embrace voice biometrics and in many cases believed it was far more secure than existing security systems.
The survey found 42 per cent of respondents ranked voice print ID as their preferred security measure, ahead of passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs).
Respondents particularly like the idea of using speech biometrics when they deal with banks, airlines and insurance companies.
"What pleased us from the research was that the amount of people who perhaps had heard of the concept of voice biometrics already believed it would offer them significantly higher levels of security," says Riddle.
"At the same time they were happy if they had to go through some extra complexity to get higher security.
"The reality with voice biometrics is actually that it's very simple. You don't need to change personal habits at all because obviously all you need to do is talk in your normal manner."
That's not to say consumers will be dialling into call centres tomorrow and uttering any words they please to identify themselves to their bank or insurer.
It's likely that voice biometric systems will rely initially on people using numbers rather than words to identify themselves.
Rodda also notes that government organisations and businesses will have to practice a little sensitivity as they introduce the technology. "Technologists . . . are going to get more pragmatic and a little bit more sensible about the targets or the projects they're taking on," he says.
"The next challenge is really about people's perceptions and their preparedness to adopt this technology for certain transactions, and I think that's where banks have a bit of a challenge.
"Not everyone feels that comfortable about being able to do a transfer of funds from one account to another just by saying their name and a number."
Instead, Rodd suggests that a mix of voice ID and traditional PINs might be required until people become more comfortable with new security practices.
Riddle cautions that companies interested in voice biometrics shouldn't wait too long before they take up the technology.
Savvy businesses could use it to improve customer service and even as a marketing tool, in much the same way that Australia and New Zealand Banking Group capitalised on security concerns with its successful Falcon advertisements, he says.
"We feel that voice biometrics is an example of how the whole process of [identifying people] can be simplified, thereby increasing the customer experience so everybody ends up a lot happier in the end.
"The organisation is able to service the customer at a cheaper cost and the customer is able to get the information they want in a shorter period of time.
"It can't be looked at in isolation or as a solitary security measure.
"It needs to be adopted not only with reference to a total security practice but also with reference to the customer experience and from a marketing perspective as well."
* VoIP has a starring role in the adoption of technologies such as voice print ID.
* Wollongong-based health insurer AHM and regional pay TV operator Austar already use the technology.
* Research by VeCommerce and callcentres.net shows consumers are ready for voice biometrics.
* The poll found 42 per cent rated voice print ID ahead of passwords and PINs.
Fairfax Business Media
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